Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The N Word

Note: this was the first column I wanted to publish for The Clarenville Packet, but the editor thought it could offend some readers.

Is this offensive? Image found here.

Unpacking the Word Newfie-Or How I Learned to Stop Insulting Newfoundlanders (and the Vietnamese)

Hello Clarenville. I’m Jayme. I’m your prototypical C.F.A.

I’m originally from Florida. I moved to Clarenville in October, along with a slew of other ex-patriots invading your town.

I didn’t think life in Newfoundland would be all that different from life in the U. S. A., but my ignorance of Newfoundland culture sometimes puts me in embarrassing situations.

Here is an example.

I wanted to call this column The Newbie Newfie. I’m a sucker for rhyme and alliteration, so I thought it was a cute title, until our wise editor gently informed me that Newfie is considered a derogatory term.

Say what?

Turns out I’d been using the term Newfie constantly, completely unaware of how offensive it was.

I called my daughter, who was born here, my little Newfie girl. Had I been unintentionally demeaning her since birth?

I told my breastfeeding group I was excited to meet some Newfie moms. I told a neighbor that I just loved Newfie music. I complained to the check out girl at Wal-Mart about this wet Newfie weather.

Why didn’t anyone tell me I was being obnoxious?

This isn’t the first time my ignorance of derogatory words put me in an awkward situation. I once told my Vietnamese dental hygienist “there’s a whole lot of gook up in here.”

I was referring to the plaque between my teeth, not to the all-Asian dental office staff. I later told my husband how oddly she responded to my remark.  

“You meant guck, not gook,” he said. “You don’t know gook is a racial slur?”

Having never gone out of my way to learn hate speech, I did not know that.

I am by nature a sensitive and politically correct person, but, heaven help me, I am always putting my foot in my mouth. I’m appalled by how easy it was for me to  carelessly insult an entire population.

And I was confused. Just where does the term Newfie fall on the spectrum of injurious name-calling?

Is it another “N-word,” as hate-filled as the disparaging “N-word” used against blacks?

If it is, the connotations are not obvious to us newcomers. We are unaware of the term’s history and of the humiliation it causes some Newfoundlanders to feel.

For us, it is mystifying to see a cheery establishment named The Newfie Store, when you would never see “the other N word” prominently used in the name of a souvenir shop.

Without a thorough education on the history of the word, Newfie sounds, to young Americans at least, like an affectionate shortening of the word Newfoundlander.

Thankfully, Ed Smith’s column, “The N-Word” in this month’s Downhome gave me a quick education of where the word comes from and the stereotype it perpetuates.

He writes, “Way back in a past that we tend to glorify…the American and Canadian forces moved in during the 1940s and ‘50s to help defend our continent from first Germany and later the Communists…Many of the Newfoundlanders they saw at the time were missing a few teeth, were illiterate, given to heavy drinking… and poorer than the proverbial church mice…We weren’t all that way, of course, but enough of us were that the stereotype was born, and the name given to describe that stereotype was the humiliating and degrading word- Newfie.”

After reading that, the word Newfie makes me cringe, just as any other denigrating word would. Now that I have some context, I can explain to another newcomer, that the word falls along side the term redneck or cracker.

Still, I’m sad it took me eleven months on this island before the true meaning of the word dawned on me.

Clarenvillians, as your town is descended upon by more obtuse Americans, like me, misusing the word Newfie, please don’t be afraid to educate us on this matter. We want to feel at home here, and can’t do that if we are accidentally insulting our neighbors.

With my track record of ignorance, Lord only knows which group of people I’ll accidentally abuse next.

At least I can say for certain I’ll never again use the term Newfie to describe Newfoundlanders, or the term gook to describe dental plaque.


Lili said...

I literally laughed out loud when I read "Having never gone out of my way to learn hate speech..."

I too am not proficient in hate speech. I had no clue gook was even a real word, much less that it was a "bad" word!

I respectfully disagree with your editor because I am thoroughly amused by your innocence!

...that may also be because I am neither a Newfoundlander or Vietnamese?

Jayme said...

LOL! Thanks Lili! My article for this week waan't published either. You might be the only person who finds me amusing.:)
Hope all is well with Z and the pupsters!